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Confronting Cancer, Chavez Relies On Trusted VP

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HUGO CHAVEZ
AP
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CARACAS, Venezuela — Gripping a microphone, the vice president had a moment to shine as he stood in for President Hugo Chavez and welcomed hundreds of athletes to a competition hosted by Venezuela's government.

Yet as his voice echoed through the baseball stadium, Elias Jaua stumbled over his words, mangling syllables while trying to pronounce "Dominican Republic," "Venezuelan people" and "welcome."

The stout, bespectacled vice president smiled sheepishly as he struggled on, and opponents later ridiculed him for the blunder. It was an embarrassing debut last month for 42-year-old Jaua just a day after Chavez delegated additional duties to him while undergoing cancer treatment.

Jaua, in fact, is typical of the faithful aides Chavez has chosen for his inner circle: loyal and inconspicuous, yet decidedly not charismatic and with none of the president's commanding verbal panache. What has endeared him most to Chavez may be his unbending allegiance, tested over many years in various Cabinet positions.

"I'm a man of honor, steeped in the values of loyalty, friendship and principles, and I'm going to defend the constitutional mandate of President Chavez with my very life," Jaua told reporters recently.

Chavez, who has been undergoing a second round of chemotherapy in Cuba during the past week, has been praising Jaua and his Cabinet for stepping up their performance and pulling together.

"I've never before had a Cabinet more united than the one I have today, never before in these 12 years, with an absolutely loyal, honest and hardworking vice president in the lead," Chavez told supporters on his 57th birthday last month. He lauded Jaua as "intelligent and studious," and called for a round of applause.

Still, political analyst Ricardo Rios said he doubts Jaua has the clout and leadership qualities to hold together Chavez's socialist party for an extended period.

Radio talk show host Luis Chataing recently imitated the vice president's verbal blunders on his morning program, and opposition lawmaker Juan Jose Caldera said the incident showed Jaua's personality lacks "any kind of shine."

Jaua has spoken with clarity and conviction in other appearances, and has enthusiastically stepped into the spotlight to promote Chavez's socialist views.

In one speech to fifth- and sixth-grade students last week, Jaua urged them to abandon capitalism-inspired ideas of individual achievement and instead aim for "success as it's understood in socialism ... standing out based on being part of a community."

He also recalled Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara's calls for a "new man" guided by socialist ideals.

Jaua is often considered part of the "radical civilian wing" of Chavez's party, along with Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, a longtime ally who after working as a public transit union leader rose to become National Assembly president and eventually Chavez's top diplomat.

A recent survey by the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis found that behind Chavez, Jaua was the most popular figure within the president's movement. Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said Jaua, nonetheless, has no independent support base that could make him an alternate to run in Chavez's place, with his popularity coming mainly from his media exposure.

Chavez surprised many Venezuelans last month when he suddenly delegated some administrative duties to Jaua and his finance minister. It was widely seen as a vote of confidence in Jaua, who for most of Chavez's 12-year presidency had worked behind the scenes as a presidential aide and in multiple Cabinet posts.

While Chavez fights cancer, Jaua has presided over televised rallies in his place, and the president has sometimes called in to join him by phone from Cuba.

Jaua also recently took the lead defending a sweeping government plan to expand price controls, which he said would affect everything from hospital services to clothing.

"We're going to set the prices. Each business will have to see within its productive process how it adjusts and lowers costs," Jaua said in an interview on state television. "The revolutionary government isn't going to delegate such an important element."

Jaua came from a family steeped in politics. His father was a leader of the traditional Social Christian Party of Venezuela, but Jaua took a more radical route while studying sociology at the Central University of Venezuela in the late 1980s. He was an activist with the leftist group Bandera Roja, and by some accounts was one of the "encapuchados," the name given to students who covered their faces and clashed with police during violent street protests.

Jaua has said little about his time in the group except that he was expelled due to an internal rift in the movement in 1991.

After Chavez took office in 1999, Jaua was one of many Chavistas elected to an assembly that drafted a new constitution. A year later, Chavez made him private secretary.

Jaua has since headed the Popular Economy Ministry and also oversaw government seizures of farmland as agriculture minister.

When he was appointed vice president last year, Chavez described Jaua as a young man "devoted to the revolution."

"He's shown transparency, ability, vocation, humility, honesty in all the positions he has held in the revolutionary battle," Chavez said.

Under Venezuela's Constitution, the vice president may take the president's place during temporary absences of up to 90 days, which the National Assembly may extend for 90 days more. Chavez, however, has not sought a temporary absence, and instead asked for congressional travel approval before his trips to Cuba for chemotherapy.

The president has vowed to overcome cancer and win another six-year term in elections in late 2012. He underwent surgery in Cuba on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor but hasn't said where exactly the tumor was located, confirming only that it was in his pelvic region.

Meanwhile, Chavez has said he will be relying on Jaua for more administrative help but that the vice president won't be called upon to stand in for him as a replacement, not even temporarily.

Historian Agustin Blanco Munoz put it bluntly by calling Jaua a loyal "puppet of Chavez" whose influence comes largely from the trust Chavez places in him.

"Jaua has none of his own characteristics of a leader," Blanco Munoz said. "He's not a man with crowd appeal or anything because Chavez always looks for the sort of characters who won't at some point steal away the camera."

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